Rev. Will D. Campbell, the churchless preacher who befriended civil rights leaders and Klansmen and became the most influential white preacher to emerge from the Southern civil rights movement, died Monday evening in Nashville. He was 88.
Campbell, the son of Mississippi cotton farmers who graduated from Yale Divinity School, influenced presidents, preachers and guitar-pickers with his “horse and buggy” theology.
“Church is not a noun; it’s a verb,” Campbell said in 2000 at his farm in Middle Tennessee. “There’s a little tavern we go to quite often near here. I marry the people, bury the people, get them out of jail or try to, and so on.
“Every one of them, without exception, would be at my house as quickly as they could get here if I needed help. And I would be at theirs. That is church.”
Campbell’s 1977 memoir, “Brother to a Dragonfly”, a National Book Award finalist, still is a textbook for cross-cultural ministry in the South. Former President Jimmy Carter called it a modern epistle.
Campbell became campus chaplain at the University of Mississippi in 1954, but left two years later amid death threats over his support for integration and reconciliation.
He was the only white man invited to attend the founding of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Council in 1957. A few months later, he escorted nine black students through angry mobs at Central High School in Little Rock.
He helped to organize and support the sit-in movement in Nashville. He counseled Freedom Riders and joined King’s boycotts, sit-ins and marches in Birmingham.
“Will mattered to so many because, among other reasons, he had the rare gift of caring for people as people without judging them for their flaws,” said Dr. Gene Davenport, a friend of Campbell’s and a retired religion professor at Lambuth College.
“The sentence for which in some circles he has become quite famous is. ‘We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyhow.’ That is why he could, on the one hand, be the only white person at the formation of the SCLC and, on the other hand, visit with a leader of the KKK on the night before the leader was to go into federal prison. He once replied to a heckler who said, ‘I understand you love the Klan,’ with, ‘I don’t love the Klan; I love klansmen.’”
In the 1970s, the focus of Campbell’s ministry began to shift from race to class. He began to pastor factory workers, farmers, country singers, rednecks, even Klansmen.
“Will came to see that poor black and poor, ‘redneck’ whites, even members of the Klan, were both victims of a societal structure that pitted them against each other; and that they are all loved by God,” said Dr. Steve Montgomery, pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church.
Campbell spent most of the past 50 years living with his wife, Brenda, on a small farm in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., where he wrote books, presided over weddings and funerals, and made moonshine. He became the model for the wise and wisecracking Rev. Will B. Dunn in the syndicated comic strip “Kudzu”.
In 2000, he received the National Endowment for the Humanities medal from President Bill Clinton and he was profiled in a PBS documentary, “God’s Will.”
Campbell is survived by his wife, their son, two daughters, and four grandchildren. His remains will be cremated. A memorial service will be held last this month.
Campbell suffered a debilitating stroke two years ago. His friend, the writer John Egerton, sent an email early this morning notifying Campbell’s friends:
Dear Friends of Will,
Last night at shortly past 10 o’clock, our beloved father-brother-friend and champion of the unsung slipped peacefully from his gathered family in Room 331 at Richland Place. His condition had been declining gradually for the past month, and turned suddenly critical over the weekend. Brenda and their three children—Penny, Webb, Bonnie—and Bonnie’s son, Harlan, the eldest of the four grandchildren, were all with him throughout most of Monday, reconciled to his approaching death, knowing that it was time. He had fought for two years to recover from the May 2011 stroke that disabled him, and he was weary of the struggle. In a final act of benevolence, Will spared them all the anguish of a long and traumatic last watch. For him and for his family, his departure was not a cry of despair; it was more like a whispered sigh of relief. Finally, he is at peace.
His remains will be cremated. Sometime later this month, there will be a gathering in remembrance of Will here in Nashville. As soon as the date and time have been decided, I will send the information to you. Brenda and the entire brood asked me to convey to you each and all their deep feelings of gratitude for your countless expressions of love and support down through the past months,
Peace be with you,